The 5 Stages Of Grief As Applied To My 5 Day Cross Country Move | Part 3: Santa Fe, NM
After an introspective road trip through Nebraska and Colorado, the last stop on my ostentatious adventure before I landed in Arizona was the painted desert of Sante Fe. Cruising the blacktop highway of old route 66 that ran through New Mexico like a collapsed vein, I found myself in the great American West. The sprawling landscape of New Mexico seemed to defy both physics and description, a place that magnified the questions in my mind and kept the answers to itself. It was a frontier that valued self-sufficiency, rugged individualism, and the freedom of wide open spaces and wide open possibilities. And it beckoned to me with the promising allure of reinvention and a brand new life.
I passed street vendors that sat on milk crates with their wares spread out on card tables or leaned against adobe brick walls. I spotted hand-woven Navajo rugs, shiny silver Conchos, stuffed animals sealed in cellophane, and flat sealed pouches of buffalo beef jerky. I stared at the blue-green bracelets the vendors were peddling like epitaphs of a former life. My mother always loved turquoise.
I had told the story of my mother's suicide so many times before. Fast and frivolous, detached and tough. I felt a mild disgust and impatience with the tediousness of my story and the necessity of having to lay it out like a blueprint just to get the parameters down. It was too long and too complicated and talking about her death somehow seemed to offend my sense of storytelling.
My mother, hanging from my living room ceiling fan with my red winter scarf as her noose and worn out knock off ugg boots that swept the midcentury hardwood floors...How does anyone even begin to tell that story?
Growing up my mother was the epitome of vibrancy, the very opposite of who she'd grown to be in the months, weeks, and days before her death. I'd combed through my mother's life looking for clues. Were my memories real or only built from photos? Every picture of her I picked up was carefully scrutinized. Did she look happy? Was she happy then? As I drifted further away from Minneapolis and the night that had changed my life forever, I felt like I was floating further away from the real memory of my mother before the depression, mental illness, and alcoholism took over.
My parents were working class, neither graduating from college and both with big dreams of entrepreneurship (the apple didn't fall far from the tree). Before Chip and Joanna Gains and TLCs slew of reality fixer-upper daytime shows, my mother and father were slowly building their American dream one duplex, triplex, and single family unit at a time. Working in real estate wasn't a life long dream for them but merely a vehicle to financially support their real passion project which was ministry work.
Staunch believers, my parents raised my younger brother and me with deep-seated evangelical and charismatic convictions. I spent more time in church as a child then I did in school, and my parents spent more of their hard earned money on tithes and offerings then they did on our monthly groceries or electric bills. Bleeding hearts, they opened up their checkbooks at every single fire and brimstone alter call. The Word of Faith mega churches with their blinged out pulpits had managed to bulldoze roughly fifty percent of my parents meager $35k in annual income year after year. Embracing every conservative theology they were taught-"give and it will be given to you, pressed down, shaken together, running over..."- tithing had become my parent's investment portfolio.
With growing zealous pentecostal ideologies, my parents decided by my third-grade year in elementary school that they would unenroll me from the private school I'd been attending to home school me. Having my mother as my teacher every day, bound us together in an intimacy that was indescribable. Over time we studied times tables and learned about prepositions but what we really studied and what we'd really learned were each other. Even as a young girl, I understood that woman had secrets, and that some of them were only to be shared with their daughters or their mothers. I had my mother's golden flecks of hair, and her spirit was stitched into the tenderest places inside of me like a patchwork quilt. We were woven together. And I was never certain where her fabric ended and mine began.
Things fell on my mother that weren't easy, and there were stories she kept to herself. There were cracks in her marriage to my father. Chinks in her meticulously planned out financial future when the 2008 housing market collapse wiped my parent's savings dry and forced them into foreclosure. There were fractures to her faith after suffering years of spiritual abuse in church and the same megachurch my parents tithed so much of their money, that took in $460,000 a week in contributions, turned it's back on my parents when they were struggling to pay their utilities.
The tall, broad-shouldered, and perpetually tan pastor with his brilliant white smile and warm southern drawl anguished my parent's pleas saying the proper response to their current financial fears was to redouble their resolve. None of us could go back to church after that.
When my mother lost her faith, that was when the drinking started back up. She'd gone twenty years sober after finding god, but when she lost him, and her house, and subsequently her marriage, she drowned her bitterness searching for what she'd lost in the dregs of a vodka bottle. Brown paper bags and empty booze bottles littered our house. I'd find them in a pile of dirty clothes buried deep in her closet, tucked between the mattress pads, and hidden in the bathroom cabinets. I'd grown to see the person who had raised me all those years through a different lens. Her disease changed me. Every night, my younger brother and I would come up with new creative ways to distract her so I could pour her alcohol out when she wasn't looking.
One night she climbed into her two-door Mitsubishi for a late night cruise, and I called 911 hoping experienced professionals would be able to help her in a way I couldn't. All that phone call did was backfire. Instead of getting the mental help she needed, she acquired a pile of mounting legal debt, an eight-month stint in jail, and a distrust in me that never really dissipated. Mandated jail time didn't help, and neither did the rehab facility she checked into for ninety days. On the surface, she'd leave transcended from her darker habits, but they always managed to swallow her back up.
Neglecting travel so I could be near my mother, I finally managed to find some separation from her when I moved to Minneapolis, and she moved to Wisconsin. It was only an hour and a half drive upstate and across the border, but it was enough to give me a semblance of healthy boundaries. The drinking continued, but she had found a new lover, and now she was his problem I mused. We still called each other every day and Facetimed weekly, and for a while, I tricked myself into thinking she was getting better. But a hazy, hot sultry summer day led her back to my front door stoop after her current boyfriend had kicked her out when her drinking had finally gotten the best of him.
She stayed with me on my couch for a few days, the same apartment she'd helped me paint and decorate until I came home one day to discover her drunk and passed out on the front lawn. Red wine stains on her lips and grass stains on jeans. Incoherently muttering as she swayed awake. I couldn't live like this. Wondering if each time I left for work if she'd walk to the nearest liquor store to drink herself into oblivion. I found a women's shelter in Wisconsin that had an open bed and as painful as it was to leave her there I did.
For a few months, things seemed to be turning around for my mother. She'd gotten a job, and was working on getting her own apartment. When she broke her ankle on a rainy bike ride to work one day all the progress in confidence, she'd made had disappeared. With time running out at the shelter and an injury that left her unable to work, my mother picked up her cell phone and a bottle of booze and reunited with an old flame. Bony and bald with tattoos lining his forearms the ex-rocker truck driver picked her up a few days later, and she became his compatriot in his cab as he drove across the country. The breakneck pace to make nearly 2,800 miles in three days didn't allow for much sightseeing adventures, but she seemed content to simply stare out the big rig's windows admiring the views.
The facade of happiness was short lived. Crying over the receiver, my mother would tell me how miserable she was, how unsafe she felt, and how much she missed me every few days. It was heartbreaking. Eventually, the phone calls and the paranoia grew more and more concerning, and I decided to drive to the little town up north where she was staying to retrieve her.
It was December, two weeks before Christmas when I helped her load black garbage bags filled with clothes and boxes filled with expired food-self donations along with the little valuables she had left into my Prius. Her sepulchral voice greeted me when she answered the door. I didn't have a plan, but I tried to sound upbeat. First a job, then an apartment of her own I promised. She pretended to believe me.
Four days later, I returned home from work to find my apartment empty and my mother wandering the streets outside my building in below-freezing winter temperatures, belligerent, drunk, and mumbling how she didn't want to live anymore. Trying to hold back tears in my eyes, I called 911 as I followed her for 35 minutes up and down the busy uptown neighborhood before paramedics arrived. They took her to the psych ward and the next day when they called me to verify my mother's information; I begged them not to release her. Calmly I spelled out the grisly facts of my mother's addiction, to the nurse on the other end. I laid out the details of her disease and mental illness like I was listing off the ingredients on the back of a cereal box. "Two suicide attempts that I knew of, three stints in rehab, four DUIs, and one felony charge," I told the nurse. Three hours later, the nurse called back to inform me my mother was being discharged.
I picked up my mother and her discharge papers that afternoon. Reading through the paperwork, I learned she had another criminal charge and a chemical assessment she needed to complete before the county could offer any help. Most of that next morning was spent arguing. Distressed, I woke up before the sunrise so we could stand in line at the clinic over on Park Avenue that offered walk-in assessments. My mother told me she felt hopeless and that her life wasn't worth living anymore and I scolded her for thinking such things and tried to encourage her that this was only tempory. "We'd always found a way through" I reminded her "and we'd find our way through this disease too." But we'd never make it to that appointment. Instead, we'd spend the morning before I had to rush off to work, driving around town so she could cash a money order my grandmother had sent her. Exhausted from bickering, by the time we found a western union and returned we both agreed to postpone the assessment for the next day. "I love you," I told her unlocking my apartment door to leave. "I know everything will work out." Apologizing for the argument, I left her there in my apartment. Alone. I'll never forget that feeling, the way it feels to walk out the door unaware you're closing for the final time.
It was the 3rd Wednesday in December, five days before Christmas that I'd come home after work to find her lifeless body. When I returned and unlocked my apartment door and saw her there, she looked so fake like a wax doll on display at Madame Tussauds. At first, I thought it was a prank. But a few milliseconds later my brain picked up speed and I realized what I was staring at. My mother was partially suspended from my living room ceiling fan. What happened next is hard to explain. Scientists and psychologists are still tapping into their understanding of this phenomenon.
I had an out-of-body experience. Outwardly, I began to howl and scream as I rushed to her body and attempted to hoist her up and untie the knots. Inwardly, I have never felt so calm. I could see myself thrashing her around trying to undo the red fabric as if I was a spectator watching from the sidelines. Whatever place I'd traveled to in my mind, the matrix had slowed the seconds down and expanded both time and my rational train of thought.
I was sure she was dead. Her body was frozen solid, her skin was ash and mottled, her mouth was dark blue, and her bottom lip jutted out. She had soiled herself, and all I could think about was how much she must have really wanted to die when she had the option to stand up the entire time but didn't. I knew she was gone. But the optimist in me had to try. I ran to the kitchen to find the sharpest thing to cut her down with. As I cut above the knot with a pair of gold leaf scissors in the shape of the Effile Tower, her stiff body collapsed to the ground, and a faint hiss echoed from her vocal cords as her final breath escaped. Dialing 911, I removed the scarf to see a deep and distinct furrow in her neck that would never rise again. The paramedics arrived before the 911 operator got to the part of the phone call where she would walk me through CPR. I was grateful for that because as strong as I had to be to cut her down, I didn't think I had the strength to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Most of those first few hours, like most of the first year after her death, was a blur. Vaguely, I remember paramedics hugging me and giving me their deepest condolences as they shuffled around my apartment looking for clues. I remember calling my brother and blurting out that mom was dead, unaware I was on speaker, and my 3-year-old nephew was listening in on the entire conversation. I remember the way my grandmother's voice cracked when I phoned her from 1500 miles away to tell her, her daughter was dead. And I remember a chaplain leading me out the back entrance of my apartment building so I wouldn't have to see the paramedics wheeling my mother out in a black body bag.
My brother and I had talked and agreed on a few things: there wouldn't be a funeral, our mom would be cremated, and I would take care of her final arrangements along with writing her obituary. The decision to forego a funeral was an easy one. My mother was adamant she never wanted one, and after giving the eulogy at my former roommates funeral who had also died by suicide the year before, so was I. Rather than sit in a full Mass with a stranger presiding over her memory questioning her soul's salvation or damnation, I wanted to honor it with the few close people whom she really knew. We called it a Celebration of Life as if there was such a thing at that moment.
We asked our friends to bring stories, to share their memories over a good meal and aged spirits. Exactly how my mom would have wanted us to remember her. At her celebration, I told stories about her vegetable garden and how she loved weeding that garden with my brother and I as her helpers back when child labor was legal, or so I was told. I shared about her love for cooking and how she could take Ritz Crackers and ketchup and after sprinkling a little of her gifted magic, could turn it into a four-course meal that even Michelin would rate with three stars. I described how my mother held more creativity in her pinky finger than most people did in their entire body and we laughed over her extensive vocabulary and how proficient she was at knowing more curse words than most people would learn in a lifetime. Drinking the wine and eating our meal together like we were taking communion at church, we retold our stories of my mother.
After her death, I couldn't go back to that same apartment. No amount of sage could cleanse the memories trapped inside those eight hundred and thirty-seven square feet. Moving out felt like the best way to move forward so three weeks after she died, I packed up and relocated six blocks away.
The spring after she died was punctuated with the most sadness. The brief sense of longing that crept in felt fresh like the springtime air and simultaneously far removed. I was working and traveling, but even when I smiled or laughed, I was empty. Sometimes there were periods where all I could feel was her absence. I'd catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see her reflection staring back at me in the way my brow would furrow, and the lines in my forehead wrinkled the same way hers did. But it wasn't her. My birthday rolled around the day before mother's day and the only thing I felt that weekend was the void she'd left me with. Pretending I was fine, I spent my 32nd birthday and my first motherless mother's day alone in my apartment-just me and 1.75 liters of Buffalo Trace whiskey that I tried to numb the feelings with. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone I'd spent that weekend home alone and so I suffered in silence.
Depression is a common feeling after losing someone to suicide, but for me, it felt impossible to share or open up about even with my family. It was a wound that allowed people dangerously close to the darkest parts of myself, and after suffering the trauma and the post-traumatic stress of my mother's death, it was a wound that felt too raw, too scary, too selfish, and indulgent to admit to, and yet it consumed me. Outwardly you'd never guess, as I posted happy photos and inspirational captions on my Instagram feed, but inwardly I was numbing the pain. My mother chose alcohol to numb hers, and I found myself mostly picking "busyness" as my way of diverting the pain so I wouldn't have to face it.
I was also trying to manage the PTSD I was experiencing and the full-blown panic attacks that surfaced at the worst times, like when I was driving. Each gut-wrenching episode left me gripping my steering wheel, paralyzed by fear, and sobbing uncontrollably. I had never been an anxious person, but there I was bawling and barreling down the freeway.
A few times a week, I practiced yoga for the empty space, but all it did was give me time to think and wonder why. Marking my way through a list of reasons I should logically be happy, but something in my brain wouldn't let me get there. I went to therapy and lied to my counselor, saying the things I thought she needed to hear. I was afraid that my grief would sound the alarms if I gave words to my feelings or articulated my despair. I didn't want to die, but I also didn't really want to live. I'd lie in bed in the limbo of living and dying and pray for my heart to stop or for an intruder to break in and end my suffering for me. I went so far as to play Russian roulette with my decisions, putting myself in potentially dangerous situations like not wearing my seatbelt and driving fifteen miles over the speed limit during inclement weather. I had all the signs that something was wrong, but I was moving too fast in my life in Minneapolis to do anything about it.
I knew putting the onus on survivors was grossly unfair, but it didn't stop the lingering questions from eating away at me. What if? What if I hadn't left for work that day insisting my mother was going to be okay? What if the hospital hadn't discharged her? What if her ex-trucker boyfriend hadn't turned her phone off? Would she have reached out that day? Could she have been saved?
The questions I had asked myself after my mother's death were as boundless as the landscape I found myself driving through as I journeyed further into New Mexico. Did time heal all wounds? I was doubtful. But I knew I had to make peace with where I was coming from as I continued on my journey to Phoenix. I didn't think it was possible to embrace my future in Arizona until I'd really opened up and embraced the past and acknowledged the trauma I was leaving behind in Minneapolis. The twenty-eight-hour car ride had given me a lot of time to think about the things I'd spent most of the year numbing out. By the time I made it to the Sante Fe's luxury boutique that would be my lodging for the night, I was burnt out from all the miles I had literally and figuratively traversed through.
Checking into my spacious superior king room, at the Rosewood Inn Of the Anasazi with its local art, handcrafted furnishings, and indigenous textiles, I slipped into the plush cotton bathrobe provided and turned on the gas-lit kiva fireplace for an evening of journaling all the self-reflection I had done in the most lauded hotel in New Mexico. After days of being on the road, the IOTA, with its nearly perfect five-star TripAdvisor reviews and prestigious rankings as one of U.S, News & World Report's 2018 Best Hotels, felt like a world-class retreat. Quaint and comfortable, yet lavishly luxurious. The distinctive pueblo style architecture with its archaic charm and old age character felt as if I'd stepped back in time without losing my WiFi connection or other modern amenities. Of all the hotels I'd stayed at during my cross country move, I felt like I could curl up happily at the Rosewood Inn Of the Anasazi and never want or need to leave. Perhaps a home address was overrated?
As I lounged in one of the most jaw-dropping hotels I have ever experienced with my own my private, restful seating area and its traditional wooden ceiling of vigas and latillas, I felt endlessly grateful for the abundance, freedom and bountiful life experiences that this road trip was providing me. The quiet sanctuary gave me plenty of time to contemplate the decisions that lay behind and before me. How to heal? Who to love? What did my vision of the future look like, and how did I get there? Before I could dive too deep into the thoughts, I felt, the lure of restful sleep beckon me to bed.
The next morning passed with similar pampering. I had anticipated ordering in-room dining after not wanting to change out of my opulent high-end thread count cotton robe, but I hadn't anticipated the Santa Fe influenced and vibrantly diverse breakfast menu handcrafted by the IOTA's in house chef Peter O'Brien. Armed with a fifty dollar breakfast voucher, I scrutinized the menu for its vegetarian options and ordered three specials with a few non-menu requests which they didn't hesitate to prepare. Huevos Rancheros with Anasazi beans, dos salsas, and asadero melted Mexican white cheese, accompanied my order of Griddled Blue Corn Pancakes with mixed berries and organic maple syrup. And the Southwest Breakfast which boasted two eggs (over easy) green chile roasted potatoes, and vegetarian substitute for the chorizo (at my request) with fresh squeezed orange juice and a perfect foam covered vanilla cappuccino rounded out my order. Seizing my last chance to soak up and bask in the indulgent grandeur of Sante Fe, I savored every last bite of the scrumptious breakfast as I caught up on the world affairs I'd missed during the previous four days. I could feel the last grips of stress release from my shoulders as I finished my breakfast and packed up my luggage ready to depart on the final bend towards Phoenix.
As I drove further into New Mexico trying to accept the vastness of the questions I would never know I found metaphors in the mountains. Suicide, like the landscape before me was the great unknown but maybe the real meaning I was searching for was showing other people who had mountains of their own that they too could be conquered.
I used to think that everything happened for a reason, but that was only because I’d never gone through anything hard enough to make it untrue. Now I knew, that not everything happens for a reason. My mother's suicide, "New York"...maybe there was no rhyme or cosmic reasoning behind their introductions, but maybe their was still meaning left to be discovered. Was it possible to find meaning in everything? Was it possible to make peace with what happened? If I only focused on the hard stuff and the bad things, then I was certain I would lose everything else that came with it. If I only focused on her death and his absence and how unfortunate it was and how much it hurt and I how much I wished they both were still here then I would lose the gift they gave. The gift of hope and possibility that "New York" sparked in me that the romantic connection I was longing for was out there somewhere and the gift of my mother's life. Getting to have Kelley Lynn Smak as my mother for 31 years was a gift even despite the hard years and brutal end. As hurtful as it was saying goodbye to both of them I'd uncovered a lot about myself.
I'd never forget the trauma I'd lived through, but I couldn't go on pretending the pain away and ignoring the loss I felt. Cruising out of Sante Fe, I decided that if the heartbreak of the last two years were going to stay with me forever, that I was going to create meaning from it. I was going to build something positive from the negative I'd endured. I'd felt so disconnected after "New York's" departure and my mother's death from everyone and everything, and I resolved on that last bend to Phoenix that opening up and sharing my story could equalize me with everyone else.
Did my past make me a victim? Or did it make me a warrior? Preferring the latter, I knew some people; even my own family would remain stuck in their personal limiting stories and perceptions. But I was firm in my choice to break through the limits of mine. I was a daughter learning the story of my mother's death, but I was also a writer, and I knew if I wasn't intentional about the stories I wrote and told myself that my memoir could end up looking eerily similar to my mom's.
Everyone has a story. And there are parts of our stories that we each have but won't share. So none of us can see the contours and texture that's only gleamed when we connect the dots through the sharing of those narratives. My story could continue to hold me back if I allowed it to or I could choose to rewrite my own ending. An ending where instead of being the poor helpless damsel I got to be the heroine who saved herself. The beautiful, magical truth that I was becoming aware of was that by slowly telling my story I was already morphing into a protagonist I could be proud of and finally starting to heal from my grief. And I knew my story had the power to cure others as well.
My journey through those five stages of grief weren't stops on some linear timeline like my treck west to Phoenix. But those two thousand miles in between had taught me a lot. Bridging the border into Arizona, I remembered one of my favorite quotes the poet Jenna Cecelia penned, "Healing isn't taking the fast lane down the highway. Healing is taking the back roads with potholes and dead ends." Grinning as I remembered it, I knew for my healing that I was going to need to stay present and take my life off cruise control. If I was going to rewrite my ending, then it would start by putting in the work. I knew true healing and transcendence would only come when I finally faced my painful stories and wrestled with what they had to teach me. As I saw the city of Phoenix lit up from my car window, I felt as if I was finally closing the painful chapter of my story and starting my life in Arizona with a blank white page just waiting for me to write the next one.